Skip to main content

Ferry disaster: Yellow ribbons become symbol of hope, solidarity

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
updated 7:39 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Schoolchildren tie yellow ribbons onto the roadside of a main gate at Danwon High School on April 24, 2014.
Schoolchildren tie yellow ribbons onto the roadside of a main gate at Danwon High School on April 24, 2014.
  • Yellow ribbons are tied to the gates of a school hit by the sinking
  • A local student group started using them to support families and spread hope
  • Celebrities have begun circulating the image; donation pages have been set up
  • Yellow ribbons have been widely used in the United States since the Iranian hostage crisis

(CNN) -- The bright yellow ribbons are tied tightly to the metal bars of the main gate at Danwon High School.

Nearby, they are attached to trees and posts. Altogether, there are thousands of them.

More than 300 students from the school were on a field trip on the Sewol, the ferry that sank last week off the coast of South Korea. Most of them are dead or missing.

The ribbons symbolize solidarity with the missing teenagers' families and hopes that some of the students -- who went to school in Ansan, a city near Seoul -- might still be found alive.

Did heavy cargo lead to ferry disaster?
Man behind the South Korea ferry
Divers: There are no air pockets left
Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300. Sewol ferry captain Lee Joon-Seok was acquitted of murder, avoiding a death sentence, but was sentenced to 36 years in jail on November 11 for his role in the maritime disaster that killed more than 300.
South Korean ferry sinks
Photos: South Korean ferry sinks Photos: South Korean ferry sinks

The approach borrows from a practice that became popular in the United States during the Iranian hostage crisis that began in 1979. The tradition was used again in the United States during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In South Korea, the ribbons have also spread into the realm of social media. Many people have posted an image evoking them as their profile photos on services like Facebook and Naver.

The image is a bold yellow square with a black border. In the center sits a simple design of a bow in black with a line of Korean written underneath.

"One small step, big miracle," it reads.

Celebrities join in

The online movement was started Saturday by a local student club, according to The Korea Herald, an English-language newspaper in South Korea.

The group wanted "to support the families of the missing and offer a hopeful message to the Korean public that the missing passengers could still be found alive," the newspaper reported.

Other variations of the yellow ribbon image have also begun to circulate on popular social media sites. And Korean celebrities have helped spread the word.

The K-pop star G-Dragon posted an image of a yellow ribbon on his Twitter feed, and the actress Park Shin-hye changed her profile picture to a ribbon picture with the popular hashtag #prayforsouthkorea written underneath.

Ribbons spread

Clusters of real ribbons have also reportedly sprung up in other cities, such as Seoul and Chuncheon. Some of the ribbons have messages and tributes written on them.

FC Seoul, a top local soccer team, will don the ribbons for a Saturday game against the Jeonnam Dragons, according to local media.

The hopes the ribbons symbolize are fading fast. Rescuers saved 174 people on April 16, the day the ship sank, but no other survivors have been found since. Divers say they have found no air pockets that could have kept people alive inside the submerged vessel.

Families grieve as ferry death toll rises
Memorial stirs raw emotions for families
Ferry crew member honored as a hero

Raising donations

The ribbons are also being used as a rallying point to raise money for the families who are grieving or still anxiously waiting for news of their loved ones.

National soccer player Park Chu-young, Olympic figure skater Yuna Kim and LA Dodgers pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu each donated 100 million won (roughly $100,000), according to Wow TV, a local broadcaster.

Naver, a popular Web search portal, has a yellow ribbon page allowing users to leave messages and make donations to a fund organized by the National Disaster Relief Association.

The ribbon campaign "evolved organically in the social media sphere and is the term people seem to be using in reference to all different kinds of efforts being made on behalf of the victims and families of the disaster," said Chung Seo-yoon, a representative from the association, which was founded in 1961 by media groups.

The organization is aiming to raise 500 million won. So far, tens of thousands of people have donated, raising nearly 350 million won.

Evolving symbol

In the United States, yellow ribbons were widely used to demonstrate a desire for the return of American hostages held in Tehran between 1979 and 1981.

Before that, they had been associated with convicts returning from prison.

According to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the yellow ribbon practice originated in a modern folk legend, which was turned into a popular song, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree," which was in turn transformed "into a ritual enactment."

Since the Iranian hostage crisis, it has reportedly been picked up in other countries, for a variety of movements and causes.

In its 1991 article, the American Folklife Center noted the ribbon's ability to take on new meanings:

"Ultimately, the thing that makes the yellow ribbon a genuinely traditional symbol is ... its capacity to take on new meanings, to fit new needs and, in a word, to evolve."

READ: South Korean lawmaker: Sunken ferry was expanded last year

READ: South Korean authorities search ferry owner's offices as probe widens

READ: Abandon ship? In recent maritime disasters, captains don't hang around

CNN"s Frances Cha, Andrew Stevens and Judy Kwon contributed to this report.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
South Korean forensics officials say they are sure the body found in a field last month is Yoo Byung Eun.
updated 5:39 AM EDT, Wed June 11, 2014
The trial of the captain and crew began, with the accused facing the families of the victims.
updated 10:52 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
South Korea's most wanted man, who is believed to have ties to the company that operated the ill-fated Sewol ferry, has eluded arrest for weeks.
updated 3:09 PM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
South Korea's President apologized for a ferry disaster that killed close to 300 people and said she would dismantle the country's coast guard.
updated 11:23 PM EDT, Thu May 15, 2014
Here are 7 major factors that contributed to the ship's sinking.
updated 1:21 PM EDT, Wed April 30, 2014
The words and images from the cell phone of a girl who perished on the South Korean ferry convey the rising panic aboard.
updated 1:56 AM EDT, Wed May 14, 2014
In one video, the captain of the sinking South Korean ferry scrambles to safety. In another, stranded passengers panic.
updated 10:56 AM EDT, Sun April 27, 2014
As the death toll from the ferry disaster continues to rise, yellow ribbons have evolved into a national sign of grief.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Sun April 27, 2014
Choi Duk-Ha, 17, is credited for saving the lives of many on the ferry. He later died and is now hailed as a hero.
updated 3:31 PM EDT, Mon April 28, 2014
CNN's Nic Robertson reports on the rising anger as South Koreans learn more about the final moments of the doomed vessel.
updated 11:14 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
CNN's Erin Burnett talks to Ship stability expert Paul Roden about whether the cargo lead to the ferry disaster.
updated 12:06 PM EDT, Fri April 25, 2014
South Korea is not only a nation in mourning, but also a country overwhelmed with guilt. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
updated 3:15 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Park Jee Young, 22, helped passengers escape and distributed life jackets as the stricken ferry began to sink, refusing to wear one herself. It cost her life.
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Such bravery has been conspicuously absent from two major maritime disasters in recent times.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
South Korean students remember their vice principal, who took his own life after the ferry sinking.
updated 3:30 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
The captain of the sunken South Korean ferry is defending his actions as rescuers continue the search for survivors.
updated 10:01 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
CNN's Kyung Lah reports on suicide in South Korea following news of a capsized ferry.